When I was in third grade, I won my town's city-wide third grade spelling bee competition. It was the coolest thing of my then-young life, and it was the first time I had won anything (a camera which used a flash cube!). I'd been reading since I was two years old; I did paragraph-long reports on animals for extra credit in first grade; I was the kid who everyone wanted to have in their group for group projects. Basically, I loved learning and I loved over-achieving. These qualities, which some might call the hallmarks of a truly gifted child, might also be called mildly obsessive tendencies or borderline neuroses. Regardless, I liked the way I was (and still do).
I see a lot of myself in the characters in Spelling Bee, which is one of the main reasons I was excited to direct this piece. These characters are neurotic and compulsive and weird and beautiful; they exude confidence and fear in equal measure. (No, I'm not like that at all... 😉) Artistically, I am always drawn to interesting characters and the chance to figure out what makes them tick, and there is such unique and different complexity in all of these characters that it's basically impossible to not want to delve into and see what happens. It also helps when you've got such a spot-on talented cast and fellow creative team members who are willing to take risks, share some of their "special qualities," and engage in true art-making.)
I love the fact that we're using adult actors to play these fourth- and fifth-grade students. It's the convention that was made standard in the original Off-Broadway production, and it's an interesting dichotomy to witness in person. It's sort of like Peanuts in that we see children thinking and speaking like adults; here, we see adults thinking and speaking like children. We couple this dynamic by utilizing audience spellers in the on-stage Bee, and we see the joyful risk of live theatre in all its wonderful and spontaneous glory; we never know if the spellers will be able to actually spell the words, so it keeps the cast on its toes, often to ridiculously humorous results. Oh, and we're setting it in the magically silly world of the 1980s. (It is so choice and so very.)
Spelling Bee is a very special piece of art. It reminds us that we are allowed to be different and that we should celebrate our uniqueness. It is hilarious and poignant and moving and awkward (just like life). We root for these kids, possibly because we identify with their specific issues, but certainly because we appreciate them for their idiosyncrasies and for their childlike innocence. As one of the characters says at the beginning of the show, "we are the slightest bit bizarre," and that's absolutely okay.
Sam Brown is the director of The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee, opening January 19th. Get your tickets and join the fun.